Thursday, April 24, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Aix-en-Provence

After spending 4 days in Marseille, Bobby and I took the train 30 km/19 m north to Aix-en-Provence, where we spent two days. Founded in 123 BCE by the Romans, Aix has had a surprisingly violent history: according to Wikipedia, it was 'occupied by the Visigoths in 477, repeatedly plundered by the Franks and Lombards, and was occupied by the Saracens in 731, followed by Charles Martin in 737'.However, from the 12th century onwards, it became a artistic center, a reputation which lasts to this day.

Aix's most famous son is Paul Cézanne, the mid- to late-19th century post-Impressionist painter. During his lifetime, Cézanne's works were greatly disliked by the artistic elite in Aix. So even though he was born in Aix, lived much of his life in the area, and used many local scenes in his works, there aren't that many Cézanne originals in the local museum. Such a shame.
Aix is also home to the composer Darius Milhaud. You can see Bobby standing in front of the home where Milhaud was raised. Milhaud was born to a Jewish family, so he was forced to leave France during the German occupation during World War II. He lived in Oakland, California, teaching at Mills College and the Aspen Music Festival during the summer. Burt Bacharach studied under Milhaud, where he received the advice that would make him a very successful composer, "Don't be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don't ever feel discomfited by a melody".
One of the nights in Aix was spent in the wonderful restaurant Le Formal, where we had the 7 course truffle menu. We started with the 64 degree egg (an egg poached for an hour or so at 64 degrees Celsius). Served with smoked salmon, crème fraîche with sturgeon caviar, potato, and truffle oil and a dried chip of truffle, it was a divine introduction to the following tuffle-heavy courses.
Next was a slider of tuna sashimi and a tartine of vegetables: potato, caper berries, asparagus, truffle, and a cauliflower cream. Accompanied with sturgeon caviar in crème fraîche (a re-occuring theme, along with the truffles).
Next was one of the best courses: a scallop cooked in truffle-infused pastry, accompanied by raw scallop, dried truffles, and (you guessed it) sturgeon caviar in crème fraîche.
For the main, I choose a slow cooked beef roast, served with the most delicious and light mustard sauce (it's the whipped looking stuff  in the separate white dish), truffle mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots. The meat just fell apart and was absolutely delicious. Bobby had beef Wellington, was was also amazing and delicious.
For the cheese course, there was a little puffed pasty filled with brie de Meaux and truffle with truffle oil.
Dessert number one was an apple crumble of sorts.
And dessert number two, which was a wildly over-the-top creation of really dark chocolate, macaron, gelato, yuzu-infused olive oil, and all sorts of goodness. What a fantastic meal! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Marseille

In late March, Bobby took a research trip to Marseille. At the end of his week there, I flew down to spend 8 lovely days in the area with him. We started our trip with 4 days in Marseille. Since this was the first trip we had taken since the Christmas holidays, we decided to focus on relaxing. We didn't have too many set plans, which was a nice change from our usual frantic touring pace. Instead, we woke up late, took leisurely strolls around the city, and drank lots of caffeine (and, of course, a bit of wine). Of course, you can't take the touring out of holidays completely; we did still manage to visit historical sites and museums, like the church you can see on top of the hill. The church, Notre-Dame de la Garde, was built in the 1860s and is topped with an 11.2 m/27 ft gold-leafed statue of Mary and baby Jesus. The art inside of the basilica is a bit... bizarre. Many of the paintings depict different ways of dying: apartment building fires, car accidents, boating accidents, being struck by a falling tree. Like I said, bizarre. But back to the historical stuff!
The second largest city in France, Marseille has been inhabited for over 30,000 years. The Greeks created a large port here in 600 BCE, called Marsallia, and it was one of the major trading ports in the ancient world. As the 5th largest commercial port in Europe, Marseille is a major port. Behind these sail boats, which are docked in the Old Harbor, you can see Fort Saint-Nicolas, which was built in 1660 by King Louis XIV.
Directly across from Fort Saint-Nicolas is Fort Saint-Jean, built at the same time as Fort Saint-Nicolas. The two forts were built not to protect the town from invaders, but rather as a way for the king to show his dominance over the city. The cannons in the forts pointed towards the town!
The forts remained in use and were kept in good condition until World War II. Occupied by German forces, a munitions deport was purposely detonated by the German army during the liberation of Marseille (in other words, the retreat of the German army). The explosion destroyed much of the historical battlements and buildings in Fort Saint-Jean. It lay in ruins until the 1960s, when the French government classified the forts as historical monuments and started to reconstruct them. Fort Saint-Jean now houses the National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations.
There are many islands dotting the coastline around Marseille, including the island you see here, Île d'If. On Île d'If is the infamous Château d'If, built in the 1520s. The 'château' was actually a prison, and similar to Alcatraz, it was considered inescapable due to its isolation and strong off-shore currents. The prison was made famous by the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. In the book, Alexandre Dumas has the central character imprisoned at Château d'If for 14 years before finally escaping. In reality, no one every successfully escaped the prison.
 The Marseille Cathedral (or Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille or Cathédrale de la Major) was built between 1860s-1890s on the site used for cathedrals in Marseille since the 5th century. The Byzantine-Roman styled cathedral is huge; it can hold a service for 3,000 people.
Aside from fortresses, prison islands, and churches, Marseille is also home to bouillabaisse. A traditional fish stew, there are normally at least the three following fish in the stew: red rascasse (scorpion fish), sea robin (gurnard), and European conger (don't worry, I don't know them either). The soup was tasty, but I didn't really think it was worth the money. Oh well, at least I can cross it off my food bucket list!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Harry Potter geek-out and a wonderful wedding

After spending 10 days in California, Bobby and I headed to the UK. We were invited to a wedding in Northern England, so we decided to make a mini-holiday out of it. We left LA on New Year's Eve. Funny (not really) story: we took two different flights from LAX to London, which left on 25 minutes apart from each other, and spend New Year's Eve in the air. Don't ask how that happened. Anyways... we flew from London to Edinburgh and stayed at a lovely hotel. On the second of January, we woke up to a truly beautiful day (especially for January, in the winter, in Edinburgh!). I had remembered reading somewhere that J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book in a café in Edinburgh, and she completed the final book in a hotel there as well. So after a nice stroll around the beautiful city, I forced Bobby to accompany me to the café.
And it did not disappoint! The café, The Elephant House, is now basically a giant memorial to Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling. It's still a working café, so Bobby and I enjoyed several pots of tea and some scones while basking in the glory of all things J.K. Rowling (ok, so maybe Bobby wasn't basking, but I certainly was!). The best part of the café, minus the giant pots of tea, yummy scones, and lots of seating room, were the toilets. The toilets are absolutely covered in taggings about Harry Potter! As you can see in this lovely photo, someone wrote 'The Way To The Ministry' above this toilet (us Harry Potter fans will understand the reference). After visiting the café, we went to a few art museums, both of which were free (I love all the free museums in the UK... makes up for the 20 pound entrance fee for Westminster Abbey, and for the Tower of London, and St. James Cathedral). We even got to watch the Rose Bowl in a local pub! I do so love Edinburgh, and not just for the sake of Harry Potter  :)
On the 3rd, we took the train from Edinburgh to Newcastle, where we rented a car and headed west towards Hexam. This area of Northern England, Northumberland, is rich in ancient history. When the Romans occupied England, they tried to invade Scotland as well. However, they were never able to control the wild northern areas, so the Romans built a wall to keep the rowdy Northerners out. This wall, known as Hadrian's Wall, still stands in many areas.
In several places along the wall ancient Roman forts have been discovered. The best place to visit in the fort and accompanying village of Vindolanda, which is still an active archeological site. Occupied for 300 years by Roman soldiers and their families, the site has been a treasure trove of ancient artifacts.
My favorite of the artifacts is, of course, the shoes! They also had some really interesting writing tablets, which included messages about birthday party invites, requests for more beer, and inventory lists. There were also coins, combs, and the usual pottery found.
After visiting the Vindolanda site, we continued driving around the area on small little back roads, traveling up and down hills. It is truly beautiful countryside: green rolling hills, hidden lakes, and old ruined buildings dotting the area. We followed Hadrian's Wall for quite a ways (the wall went from coast to coast).
We stayed at a BnB in the town of Hexham, about 20 km west of Newcastle. Hexham is home to the Hexham Abbey, which was first built in 674. The original abbey was made of stones taken from dilapidated Roman ruins (by 674, the Romans had been out of England for 300 years and the forts were already in ruin). Situated on the river Tyne, Hexham was invaded and destroyed by Viking invaders in 875. Go Denmark!
Luckily, the Abbey was restored. The Frith Stool, or bishop's throne, also survived. Dated back to the 7th century, this stool might have been created for Wilfred, founder of the Abbey. Interesting thing about frith stools: they were a place of sanctuary, similar to the 'safe area' when playing tag. Anyone who managed to reach the frith, such as a criminal fleeing justice, could not be touched until they were granted assurance of justice and fair treatment. Pretty cool, eh? Anyways, moving on... we were fortunate enough to see a concert performed inside the Abbey: the church's assistant organist performed Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord). It was a lovely performance.
As I mentioned above, we were in the UK for a friend's wedding. The wedding took place in Langley Castle on a beautiful sunny (but cold) day. The castle is actually a 14th century tower house, which has been converted into a hotel.
The inside of the castle is beautifully decorated with chandeliers, thick carpets, huge curtains, and lots of comfy chairs and couches surrounding giant fireplaces.
Of course there is armor. What kind of castle doesn't have armor?
One of the most unusual things about the castle is the number of garderobes (old toilets) that were a part of the castle. There are a total of 12 individual garderobes, four on each floor. This was very rare for buildings of the time. Here you can see that two of the garderobes have been decorated with Christmas trees. No need for Pine air freshener in these toilets!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Christmas in Los Angeles

Bobby and I spent the holidays in the States this year. For the last few years, we've remained in Denmark for the holidays, so it was a nice break to be in sunny, warm California to celebrate. And, of course, it was wonderful to see so much family during our time in the States. We got to spend several days with Dad and Gloria in beautiful Manhattan Beach. We saw movies, took a walk along the beach, did some holiday shopping, and drank and ate well! I even got to go to a Clipper's game, which was a ton of fun.
On Christmas Eve, we hung out with my brother Jordan, Dad and Gloria, and Gloria's daughter Stacy and her boyfriend Safder. It was really nice spending time with everyone: we had a great meal, played board games, and played Christmas music on Gloria's player piano.
Christmas day was spent at Mom's house. She was such a sweetheart decorating the tree with Danish flags!
It was such a warm Christmas: 28 C/82 F! Bobby and I didn't have any of the right clothes for such warm temperatures. We had to roll up our pants and shirt sleeves, and I had to borrow flip flops from Mom! Flip flops, in December! It was a little embarrassing to show off our lovely Danish winter skin color...
Bobby's favorite gift was probably the time he got to spend with everyone's dogs. Here he's holding Gigi (on the left with the pink bow, my Mom's dog) and Chloe (the scared-looking chihuahua, my Aunt Gwen's dog). Not pictured was Chewy, another poodle (my Grandparents' dog).
Christmas dinner was wonderful: Papa cooked crab legs and prime roast! So many people were able to attend dinner: Nana and Papa, Great Aunt Gwen, Aunt Marlene and Uncle Dave, Cousin Christina, Brother Jordan, 2nd Cousin Bobby and his wife Cathy and their youngest son, plus Mom, Bobby, and myself. 2nd Cousin Leslie and her partner Carol were even able to stop by later in the evening. Good thing Papa cooked plenty of food!
Speaking of food... whenever we go back to LA, there are several places that we absolutely must visit for the awesome food. Here you have the fish tacos from Wahoo's, plus the awesome hot sauce Gringo Bandito. Just looking at this meal makes me hungry. Too bad there isn't a Wahoo's in Copenhagen!
We try to eat as much good Mexican food as possible when in California. Here you have the great meal we shared at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara. This was one of Julia Child's favorite places to eat, and I can understand why. I think there are three things I really miss about living in California: my family; warm weather (minus the summer weather... way too hot); and the awesome (and relatively cheap) variety of authentic food from many different cultures.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Weekend trip to Bonn and Aachen

For the last trip of his grant, Bobby spend two weeks in Bonn doing research at the Fraunhofer Institute (you can read about all that Bobby accomplished during his two year grant here; it's a very impressive list). I took an overnight train from Copenhagen to visit him (which was an adventure in itself, complete with hurricane-force winds, scary Germany boarder police with big flashlights at 2 am, and a Soviet-era train compartment with folding beds). Bobby has been to Bonn before, and we've both been to neighboring city Cologne (remember that blog post about eating 7 different animals in a 40 hour period?), so Bobby surprised me and took me to the town of Aachen to visit my ancestor! In order to visit, we had to stop by the Aachen Cathedral. The octagon and cupola you see here were first erected around 800 A.C.E.!
The inside of the cathedral is absolutely stunning. The core cupola is decorated with classical pillars and Carolingian bronze railings. This was the first post-classical cupola to be constructed north of the Alps.
The decorated ceilings are also quite lovely. Everywhere you look is detailed artwork.
And finally, the main event: my great (times many) grandfather, Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great, grandfather of Europe). Yes, it's true, I am related to Charlemagne, and I've got the papers to prove it! Do you see a resemblance? The Aachen Cathedral was commissioned by Charlemagne and is his final resting place. In the Middle Ages, the Aachen Cathedral became one of Christendom's most important places of pilgrimage. The pilgrimage still takes place every 7 years, with the next one happening summer 2014. During the pilgrimage, the four Aachen relics are taken out for display: Mary's cloak, Jesus' swaddling clothes, John the Baptist's beheading cloth, and Jesus' loincloth.
In addition to its religious importance, Aachen Cathedral was also politically important. Between 936, with King Otto I, and 1531, with King Ferdinand I, 30 kings and 12 queen were anointed and crowned in the Cathedral, and then enthroned on this throne. The throne, which was created for Charlemagne, was actually made of even older ancient material! Some claim that the steps are from Pilate's palace, which, according to the Bible, Jesus climbed up after being whipped.
This sarcophagus, known as the Persephone Sarcophagus, is where Charlemagne was first interred (his remains were removed around 1215 and put in the golden Shrine of Charlemagne, which is housed inside the main chapel of the Cathedral). The sarcophagus was created in the first quarter of the 3rd century A.C.E.
We all know by now how much Bobby and I love eating, so let's get to the good part: German food! In every city we visited (Bonn, Cologne, and Aachen), the Christmas markets were in full swing. It was fun to see all the crafty things for sale, but what we really enjoyed with the hot mulled wine and beer and the giant grills! Many of the guys behind the grills were dressed in traditional German clothes (lederhosen and all). There were so many different sausages to choose from, all of them delicious.
And we weren't just limited to sausages. Here we have a steak! In a bun! With grilled onions! Oh man, this was so delicious.
Don't worry, though; we saved room for dessert, like this gooseberry cake. I have to say, cold winter months are the best time to fill up on the rich, heavy German foods.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Weekend trip to Barcelona

Bobby gave a talk in Barcelona on Wednesday, so we took the opportunity to have a long weekend away from cold, dark, rainy Copenhagen. We arrived Saturday evening and immediately went to a tapas bar. We both had some cava, the Spanish version of champagne. We then proceded to stuff ourselves full of a variety of little bites.
We simply had to take our plate up to the bar and pick what we wanted.
We had some Ibérico ham, goat cheese with tapenade, and another soft cheese with an onion jam.
We also had crab salad, fish cake, and salmon mousse with roasted bell pepper. You can see one toothpick spearing each tapa; this is how the waiters know what to charge you. We paid by the toothpick, and each tapa was 1.95€. So for under 40€, we ate a ton of tapas and had enough cava to leave us feeling happy.
But no evening out is complete without dessert. On our walk home, we came across a lovely little gelato place. We shared two scoops; I chose dark chocolate, and Bobby chose cherries and cream. As you can see, Bobby was very happy with his choice.
The next morning we started our day with some café con leche and croissants from the amazing Hofmann bakery. We were lucky enough to stay just a few blocks away from Hofmann, which is one of the best bakeries in Barcelona. We tried their croissants filled with mascarpone and one filled with raspberry jam. I was hoping they would have their mango-filled croissant, which I had been recommended to try, but they didn't make any on the two days we visited. Oh well, we were quite happy with our selections!
This was our second trip to Barcelona; we first visited in June 2009. The nice thing about going to a city you've already been to is that there is less pressure to visit everything since you've already seen so much of it. We therefore didn't feel any guilt about just wandering and meandering around. We still saw a few historical sites, like the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. There was a concert of some traditional Catalan dance music outside of the cathedral; there were many older (and even a few younger) people wearing special shoes dancing in a big circle. One man was energetically waving the Catalan flag.
We even re-visited the side cloister, which is home to a gaggle of noisy geese. I wonder if the Cathedral's priests get a special meal of foie gras every so often...?
I just love this covered passage!
We continued our relaxed strolling in the Gothic area, stopping for not a cone of ice cream but a cone of meat!
We love all of the cured meats you can find in Spain. We were quite tempted to buy a whole hock to take home, but we didn't think it would fit in our carry-on. Next time, we'll bring a bigger suitcase.
We also did some shopping while in Barcelona. As you can see in this photo, I was in shoe heaven. All ballet flats, all made with good materials in Barcelona! Needless to say, I bought a pair. But don't feel too bad for Bobby; he eventually got a pair of shoes as well (not ballerina flats, though).
The days are getting very short in Copenhagen; it is completely dark by 16:30, and it's quite chilly as well (we might get our first proper snowfall this week!). It was still a pleasant temperature in Barcelona, though; it was in the 70s during the day with plenty of sunshine to make us feel very pale. The days are also longer, which helped us adapt to the Spanish meal schedule. In Spain, it's very unusual to eat dinner before 20:00 or 21:00. I don't mind eating late so long as I have a cone of meat as a snack in the later afternoon. However, what is difficult is knowing what to do with the hours between 18:00 and 20:00! So, of course, we drank. We really, really enjoyed this sangria. Bobby enjoyed his sangria so much that he gave a euro to some really crappy street musicians.
After a bit too much sangria and support of the arts, we headed to dinner. We greatly enjoyed this squid, along with a few other dishes. Unfortunatley, we ordered a large plate of cockles (sea snails). It turns out we both hate cockles. Land snails are tasty; sea snails not so much. Oh well, live and learn!
The next day we headed to the Park Güell. Completed in 1914, the park was designed by the famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (perhaps best known for the Sagrada Família church).
The park is a UNESCO world heritage site and at .17 km2, it is one of the largest architectural sites in southern Europe.
La Torre Rosa, which is also within the park, was where Gaudí lived for a number of years. Compared to his other works, I think the style of this building is quite restrained.
This is more what I expect from Gaudí.
For our last dinner together, Bobby and I went out to a wild game restaurant. The restaurant, Pitarra, is housed in an old clock-makers studio and there are many different clocks all over the walls. The food was pretty good, though a bit under-seasoned. We started with some local mushrooms, which were served with Iberico ham, prawns, and parsley sauce.
We then split two main courses. We started with the leg of baby goat. This was served with more mushrooms, a long and slow roasted tomato, and scalloped potatoes. This was my favorite course. The goat leg was very tender and juicy, falling off the bone like pork knuckle. When a couple next to us ordered the same dish, the waiter asked if they wanted the right leg or the left leg (at first they didn't understand that he was joking).
Our final course was wild board in a chocolate sauce. The boar was tasty and not too gamey, which was nice because we've had some really, really gamey boar in the past. The chocolate sauce, however, was too overpowering, and too chocolately. It wasn't bad, but nor was it great.

All in all, we had a really lovely weekend relaxing in Barcelona. We spent out time wandering around, eating well, sipping cafés, and enjoying each other's company. A perfect weekend away!